On this date, fifteen years ago, Pope John Paul II died. I remember this time well because I was 14 at the time and the news of his death was, paradoxically, also the biggest news to me of his life. Before his death, I’d heard his name my whole life but I hadn’t really gotten to know much about him or his remarkable biography. But then, in 2005, every magazine cover had his face on it and it seemed that there was unending coverage of this Catholic leader whose life had made a profound difference not only in the Church but throughout the whole world in the drama of the twentieth century.
After John Paul II’s death, I began learning about him the way a teenager does. I made sketches from photos of episodes in his childhood, like when he received his First Holy Communion. I read comic book versions of his life story. I collected the commemorative coins the Canadian mint released. I began to read many, many books about him and to pore over the many moving images of his pilgrimages worldwide. Even though I was tremendously eager to learn about John Paul II, I could never have imagined that, ten years later, I’d move to Lublin, Poland (where future pope Karol Wojtyla had taught ethics for twenty-five years) and enrol in a master’s degree program called John Paul II Philosophical Studies.
Today I read this short Vatican News interview with Cardinal Comastri. Here are a couple excerpts:
Interviewer: Easter will be unprecedented this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic, and in compliance with the directives to contain infections. Many will remember how John Paul II’s last Easter was also marked by illness and isolation. What can we learn from that last Easter of Pope John Paul II, in terms of what is happening today?
Cardinal Comastri: We all remember John Paul II’s last “Good Friday”. The image we saw on television is unforgettable: the Pope, who had lost all his physical strength, holding the Crucifix in his hands, gazing at it with pure love. One could sense he was saying: “Jesus, I too am on the Cross like you. But together with you I await the Resurrection”. The saints all lived that way. I like to remember Benedetta Bianchi Porro, who became blind, deaf and paralyzed because of a serious illness, and died peacefully on 24 January 1964. Shortly before dying, she found the strength to dictate a wonderful letter to a disabled and desperate young man named Natalino. This is what Benedetta wrote: “Dear Natalino, I am 26 years old like you. My bed has become my home. For months I have also been blind, but I am not desperate, because I know that, at the end of the path, Jesus is waiting for me. Dear Natalino, life is a fast lane: let’s not build our house on the fast lane, let’s cross it holding Jesus’ hand in order to reach our true home”. John Paul II was on this wavelength.
Interviewer: Lastly, is there is an anecdote, something John Paul II said to you, that you might want to share with us as a sign of hope for the many people in the world who are suffering, and for those who have loved, and continue to love, Pope St. John Paul II?
Cardinal Comastri: In March 2003, John Paul II invited me to preach the Spiritual Exercises for the Roman Curia. He also participated in those Spiritual Exercises. Afterwards, he received me with great kindness and said: “I thought of giving you a cross like mine”. I reflected on the double meaning of the word, and replied: “Holy Father, it would be difficult for you to give me a cross like yours…”. John Paul II smiled and said: “No… this cross”, and he pointed to a pectoral cross he wanted to give me. Then he added: “You too will have your cross: transform it into love. This is the wisdom that illuminates life”. I have never forgotten this wonderful advice given to me by a saint.
I’m so happy that I dedicated two years to studying John Paul II in an experiential and personalist way with truly beautiful mentors, professors, and friends. And I give thanks to God for filling me with curiosity and interest in this noble soul fifteen years ago today.
Saint John Paul II, witness to hope, pray for us.